Thursday, May 17, 2012

Music as World Building (1)

In adding Les Troyens to my landmarks list, I forgot to note one other attraction of the opera, which is Berlioz's musical world building.  World building is usually thought-of as an element of fiction — fantasy and science fiction in particular, whether in literature, films, tv, or games — , through which just enough structure and details are presented as to make vivid the suggestion that the location of the fiction is within a larger and plausible (at least within the terms of its own logic) world 

Les Troyens is set in Troy and Carthage and is peopled by Trojans in the first two acts (Greeks are only a background presence) and refugee Trojans and Carthaginians populate acts three through five. The historical status of Troy is, well, complicated, but the myth is vivid, in both Homer and Vergil while the historical Carthage (near modern Tunis)  is much more established, but it is also the myth here, of a thriving city established in only seven years by exiles from Phoenician Tyre, that is at work.  A substantial part of Berlioz's project in Les Troyens was to project the two city-states through distinctive music and while we are now perfectly clear that his was not a reconstructive project and he was composing for western orchestra within a range the limits of which we now readily recognize (compare the range of instruments and scales/tunings Lou Harrison used to contrast Rome with Bythinia in the original version of Young Caesar),  the composer audibly pushed those limits to suggest these two states as contrasting cultures, if only in the anthems and marches he devised, with the Trojans in particular marked by major-minor contrast, unconventional functional harmony and by reminiscences of French Revolutionary music, repertoire that presumably continued to carry a marker for otherness.

There is some prehistory to this in that the ancient and exotic was a frequent and early theme in opera, but it took some time before the ancient and/or exotic actually was distinguished musically. Rameau's Les Indes galantes, presented four tableau representing non-European cultures, but these were supposed to be contemporary, fictional stories within real worlds, and the music was not strongly distinguished (if at all) from Rameau's usual style.  The tradition of imitating Ottoman military music is more familiar, particularly in Viennese classicism, and even when a composer's contact with actual Janissary music was relatively close (think of the Austro-Turkish War of 1787) this is again in the context of fictions told about real cultures.  Haydn's Il mondo della luna arguably attempts some fictional world (well, okay, satellite) building in the form of the faked moon landing, which is distinguished largely by reserving the key of Eb for the pseudo-lunar scenes.

A useful case for the potential advantages of world building as a compositional project may be found by considering Roger Session's opera Montezuma as a counter-example. Sessions made no attempt to synthesize distinctive musical styles for the two clashing cultures portrayed and I suspect that this lack of characterization contributed to the opera's failure.

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